For several years, one of the things that has struck me is the public debate on children and young people. Politically and democratically, children and young people continue to get a raw deal. Sometimes they are seen as a problem to fix. Until they are 18, they are not taxpayers yet, cannot vote and have no one to represent democratically what matters to them or what they want for their future. They have to wait to be given a voice through their parents or people that believe in them enough.
Discussions tend to pigeon hole children and young people's issues around child protection, youth violence and families in crisis; election essentials such as schools or tuition fees and, if push comes to shove, children's mental health. But I wonder where the holistic funding or policy-related conversation about children and young people is taking place? And if that focused conversation existed, maybe there wouldn't be problems to fix?
The recent debate about austerity, funding and policy revolves around Brexit, the NHS, schools and adult social care - all very critical issues. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and the Chair of the LGA Children and Young People's Board, Cllr Richard Watts alongside others have warned that a lack of investment in children and young people is leaving councils struggling to keep up with demand for support and that early intervention funding is under threat. The experts are shouting about the funding crisis but the silent response is deafening whereas the response to adult social care has been acknowledged in the Queen's Speech. In the words of the President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, Alison Michalska, we desperately need a 'country that works for children'.
The financial crisis and the response to it has been challenging to children and young people's wellbeing in the UK. When it comes to calls for better funding, local authorities are the Cinderella of the public sector even though they provide and commission essential services for building resilience in children and young people. Funding for local authorities has been cut by more than 40% since 2010 and is not a protected area of government spending. The funding and strategy for play, youth work and children's centres are becoming non-existent and early intervention services are left vulnerable. There is also a lack of homes at rents and prices that those on the average income can actually afford and could provide the stability a young person or family needs.
Then there are the 'invisible'. The costs of living in London and other parts of the country are so high that it puts pressure on young people and families that are on good incomes as well as low incomes. Where some of our young people such as care leavers have overcome challenges and appear to be getting on well on the outside, life can still be a struggle. The recent tragedies show us we can be a solid community that comes together. We want to dig deeper and consider the specific impact on children, young people and their parents or carers. We have to make sure that we hear everyone's voice.
Creating a child and youth friendly country
I question whether the UN Convention on The Rights of the Child is taken seriously when the needs of children and young people are de-prioritised until something goes wrong such as the death of child or young person. It doesn't help that our national and local strategies for children and young people ebb and flow dependent on who is in power. For example, there was a serious commitment to Every Child Matters in 2004; now it is barely mentioned. It's legacy is dotted around different systems and sits behind the National Archives. Within public and third sector organisations, there is hardly any space or money to think, properly plan and make things happen in a way that makes sense for children and young people.
So, let's talk about public and third sector funding for children and young people. Let's talk about a single cross-party plan that creates a child and youth friendly country. Let's do something that shows that we love children and young people, that they are as important to the future of this country as the economy and that they are not just thoughts saved for local and national elections.
If we are serious about prevention and early intervention, we need a cross-party long term approach and financial commitment that is stuck to and isn't at the mercy of changing governments. At the same time, local authorities and its partners such as the NHS and police must think about how they lead, work together, shape and design things differently with children and young people at the centre of that approach rather than the silos that work for organisations.
Putting children and young people back onto the agenda
The Islington Fair Futures Commission is a pioneering approach. I couldn't be prouder knowing Islington Council has devised this forward-thinking initiative, founded on the basis that prevention is better than cure and asked me to chair it. We have put together some of the best minds - from parents to academics - covering all aspects of society that children and young people interact with. I'm proud to have young people with a range of experiences on the Commission too, to drive the scope of the conversation: because who better knows what affects young people from all walks of life than young people themselves?
With the new uncharted political landscape, there is an opportunity to reshape the conversation on children, young people and parents, putting their concerns and the barriers they face back onto the agenda. It demands a fairer future for them. It is each and every politician's responsibility to make that happen now and to work hard for the many children and young people in this country. We should use the political passion shown by young people during the recent election to create a different country with them.
It is also important to acknowledge that much of what supports the resilience of children and young people is not solely about child protection and schools. The conversation has to be broader than this. It is also about developing local places and spaces including housing, their early childhood, what we need to equip them with for their transition through adolescence into young adulthood, their safety and involvement in the community, community cohesion and the practical as well as academic readiness for work.
The Commission is here to give a voice to the voiceless and lend an ear to those who have been crying out for change. Setting up this Commission is the first step in the right direction. It is my hope that this will be the first of many on our way to working hard for children and young people in our local authorities, towns, cities and the whole country.
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